Estimated read time: 3-4 minutes
SALT LAKE CITY — A bill to clarify state code for governing private police agencies in Utah like BYU's police force cleared its first legislative hurdle on Wednesday.
Sen. Curt Bramble's SB191 won unanimous approval from the Senate Business and Labor Committee after Bramble explained it was the product of work between the Utah Department of Safety, Brigham Young University and state officials.
"I know it's been a rough couple of years for them," Bramble said of the Brigham Young University Police Department, thanking them for working with him on the bill.
SB191 came after an administrative law judge ruled in January in favor of BYU police's motion for a summary judgment that asked the judge to throw out the Utah Department of Public Safety's decision to decertify the department.
The ruling concluded over two years of legal battles after it was discovered that a BYU police officer had accessed protected records that contained personal information about students and shared it with BYU's Honor Code Office. The Utah Department of Public Safety requested records and information from BYU police, but the state contended BYU never properly answered its subpoena and didn't act the way every other certified police department in the state acts and should act.
Although the judge's ruling found a lot of problems with BYU's arguments about why it should not be decertified, the bigger problems were with vague state statutes regarding the rules for private university police departments and the process for decertification by Peace Officer Standards and Training, the state agency that certifies police officers.
When a judge ruled in favor of BYU police — even though the same judge indicated in a preliminary judgment he was in favor of decertification — Utah Public Safety Commissioner Jess Anderson decided he wouldn't pursue an appeal, explaining in January the decision to decertify department was "difficult and weighed heavily on me, but I was left no alternative, given the evolution of choices made by BYUPD."
Anderson said he respected the judge's decision and the identification of "a lack of statutory clarity and guidance under these circumstances." At the time, he committed to working with state lawmakers to clarify state law.
SB191 is the product of that work.
"This is exactly what we need going forward," Anderson told lawmakers on the committee, explaining the bill helps clarify the process when a private police force like BYU's faces an investigation and what needs to be done to accomplish "accountability" and "regain public trust."
A BYU representative spoke in support of the bill, saying the university's police department is "grateful" to the Legislature. He said the "best way to keep students safe on a college campus is with a dedicated, on-campus, state-certified police force." The "best practices" specified in the bill, he said, are that "taking a matter directly to the commissioner meets all investigation and reporting requirements and that any decertification effort go directly to an independent state board and not be handled internally at the department itself.
"BYU believes in the rule of law and BYU police looks forward to continuing to follow requirements of certification," the spokesman said.
The bill now advances to the full Senate for consideration.